Theology reflects upon and is a reflection of the lived experience of a particular human community; in the case of feminist theology, this community is that of women living in a world marred by patriarchy and sexism. In this way, feminist theology is not much different from the theology of Augustine, whose Confessions is perhaps the most well known example of the experiential nature of theology. Neither is it much different from the works of Thomas Aquinas, who wrote about God not without but from within his lived experience as a medieval scholastic and mendicant priest. What distinguishes feminist theology then is not its relationship to experience but its awareness of this relationship.
Thus, while we should never reduce theology to experience—building a god in our own image—feminist theology reminds us that we can never escape our own situatedness. In fact, this is one of feminist theology’s greatest gifts to the global church; it is not the acknowledgement but the denial of our situatedness that is a likely occasion for theological error. This denial, then, is the greatest problem with male dominated theologies, for in forgetting that they were speaking as men, they thought that they could speak for women.
Feminist theology has also shown that the absence of women in theology was not just a moral or anthropological error, but also a theological impoverishment. Feminist theology has not just enhanced our appreciation of the full humanity of women, but, as feminist contributions to Christology, theological anthropology, ethics, and scriptural studies show, feminist theology has also enriched our understanding of Christian faith. In other words, the inclusion of women in theology is not just a matter of justice, but also of truth—without women, our knowledge of God is not merely incomplete in the way that human knowledge of God must inevitably be, but it is troublingly defective, in a way that is incompatible with our humanity.
Unfortunately, however, as with the androcentric theology it critiques, the experiential quality of feminist theology means that it is marred by the sinfulness of the community it represents. As African-American and Latina theologians have pointed out, all too often, feminist theology is a theology for, about, and by not women, but white women. Such arrogance not only discounts the real socio-cultural differences among women that often exist in large part due to the legacies and ongoing reality of racism, but, even worse, this oversight blinds feminist theologians to the way in which they themselves perpetuate white supremacy and privilege. While white women may be the victims of sexism, they are also bearers of white privilege. Womanist (a term first coined by Alice Walker and carried out by theologians such as Delores Williams and Emilie Townes) and mujerista (most famously represented by Ada Maria Asasi-Diaz–but note that not all Latina theologians consider themselves to be “mujerista,” as with any field, there is considerable diversity both in nomenclature and in content; for an appreciation of the diversity, see M.T. Davila, Maria Pilar Aquino and others) theologies exist therefore in order to ensure that the voices of women of color do not get over-powered by the dominating voice of whiteness. Similarly, these theologies also exist out because often, white feminists are not open to hearing what women of color have to say.
The lack of solidarity among women due to white privilege has deep historical roots. History reminds us that white women are not just unconscious beneficiaries of white privilege, but also they have also been instrumental in the preservation of white supremacy. More often than not, white women have chosen loyalty to race over loyalty to sex. For this reason, one can surely sympathize with many women of color who are suspicious of white feminist calls for “sisterhood.” Womanist and mujerista theologies make visible the racially fractured disunion of women in history and society that white women would often rather forget.
Mujerista and womanist theologies also call into question the motives behind white feminists’ tendency to prioritize (or even worse, focus exclusively on) sexism over racism. Womanist and mujerista theologies instead teach us that, in reality, racism, sexism, and economic oppression do not work in isolation from each other. Instead, sexual and racial oppression and identity interacts with and conditions one another; in other words, they are intersectional. In this way, they insist that it does not make sense to speak of racism in isolation from sexism; classism apart from heterosexism, etc.
In light of all of this, we recognize that the decision to do “feminist” theology is fraught with peril, as we are always at risk of forgetting both our privilege and our particularity. If we want to do a feminist theology without white privilege, then we must surely do a feminist theology against white privilege. Racism is not merely something to be talked about after we finish talking about sexism, patriarchy and the like; rather, racism is always a part of the conversation. Most importantly for those of us who are white, racism should be a part of the conversation not only when we are talking “about” and with people of color, but also and especially when we are talking about, with, and to white people. White theologians should proceed above all with a profound attitude of humility, submitting our prerogatives, perceptions, and priorities to a rigorous hermeneutic of suspicion.
Katie — This is a great overview, thanks so much. And just this morning I ran into this link — http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/10/18/things-i-dont-have-to-think-about-today/ — which, like Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Backpack” article — http://www.uakron.edu/centers/conflict/docs/whitepriv.pdf — gives, I think, a good sense of the idea of “privilege.”
Great post, Katie. I myself have been thinking a lot about this question as well as I try to do work on Mariology–in what ways am I myself perpetuating whiteness by suggesting proposals that ignore the experiences of, for example, many Latino/a communities who still venerate the Virgin of Guadalupe? This is something I very much struggle with, so thanks for putting it out there explicitly.
Your post also reminds of some of the rhetoric of the first-wave feminists in the US in their fight for suffrage rights–they sometimes made claims indicating that there were more deserving of and better fitted to full legal recognition than African Americans, especially because they, as white women, wouldn’t rock the boat on race relations, so white men need not feel threatened.
This is an ambiguous, sometimes downright ugly, legacy to face.
Katie, thank you for your post. From my own perspective, I think it’s easy to agree mentally with the points you raise, but a lot more difficult to actually incorporate it correctly into academic work. For that reason, we need to be constantly confronted with this critique.
Big surprise, I’m sure that what really struck me as I was reading this post was how pervasive structures of sin really are: just as we protest one, more likely than not we’re taking part and benefitting from another.
I really enjoyed reading your post. As a man and a person of color, I have sometimes struggled with a different but analogous problem. Let me call it: “anti-racism without male privilege.” One thing that I’ve found challenging about this problem is the need to attend to both, and to see how they are interrelated, without lumping them together. At times, I’m tempted to start thinking about the violence which stems from discourses of identity in general (race, gender, class, etc.), but then I lose the particular histories which matter a great deal. Thinking precisely about the complex and dynamic histories of women and people of color is the new goal that I am setting for myself.
The other challenge, for me, has been a question of voice. As, ostensibly, a member of one group and not the other, how should I speak? Should I prioritize my own experience, which has been colored more by race, or should I prioritize the critical awareness of my gender performance? And, if the latter, how can I do this authentically? Again, the problem of abstraction comes in here too: since it is not my experience, I find it difficult sometimes to feel confident that anything I say is real or grounded enough to address the concrete problems which women are facing.
These are just the relevant issues that have been hard for me. But more positively, what has helped, on both counts, is simply trying to listen more attentively to what women and especially women of color are saying, in order to let their perspectives inform my own as much as possible. This, at least, has seemed, when I’ve tried to do it well, to be a small but genuine act of solidarity. And I do feel that I see things differently because of it.
Anyway, just some thoughts that occurred to me while reading your post. Thanks.
Thank you for this well-written and well-argued post.
I would love to hear why you (and the rest of WIT bloggers) claim the word “feminist” as your own.
I imagine we’re all trying to be sensitive to the intersections you’ve pointed out, even if we–as Meg said–aren’t always clear *how* to do so. I know that I am greatly influenced by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s argument that feminist theology needs to 1) “take the center” of mainstream theology and 2) critique all kyriarchal structures (not just patriarchal ones). And yet, when someone asks me what my interests are, I still say “feminist theology.”
Many feminist projects have sought to reform Christianity through retrievals or reinterpretations of various Christian symbols. Among WIT bloggers (including myself), I am aware of projects to reclaim Mary, virginity, and the imago dei as symbols of liberation–even though they have historically functioned otherwise.
In some sense, particularly in light of the history Elizabeth has mentioned above, the idea of “feminist theology” is a symbol that needs to be reclaimed. It’s fraught with violence, often misunderstood, and yet each of us (even if only in the bare minimum way of writing on this blog) are claiming it as our own. Why?
Fascinating. All of this.
There is certainly a great deal to learn about this topic.
I love all the points you made.